The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep (poster)

Background:  Although he spent his formative years in England, Raymond Chandler will always be remembered for his stories of mid-century Los Angeles sleaze. Along with James M. Cain and Dashiel Hammett, Chandler pioneered modern crime fiction and laid the foundations of film noir. His hard-boiled vision of the city remains a cornerstone of the genre, echoing through Chinatown (1974), Pulp Fiction (1994), and L.A. Confidential (1997.)

Chandler only began writing seriously at age forty-four, when the Depression and his own alcoholism ended a long career in the oil business. Desperate to find work, he began writing for the influential detective magazine Black Mask, honing his skills in a series of twenty-one novellas. He “cannibalized” two of them – science fiction authors would call it a “fix-up” – into his first novel, The Big Sleep. First published in 1939, Chandler’s debut introduced his most famous creation, cynical private detective Philip Marlowe.

I read The Big Sleep for this review and was struck by Chandler’s style: he had a tremendous economy of language and a true ability to create atmosphere. Despite his English background (he once remarked that he learned “American” as a foreign language), he really knew the Southern California landscape and had an ear for American vernacular. Writing from Marlowe’s perspective, Chandler immerses the reader in the detective’s nocturnal world. In one haunting passage, Marlowe drive through Laurel Canyon “past lighted windows in big houses on ghostly enormous grounds, vague clusters of eaves and gables and lighted windows high on the hillside, remote and inaccessible, like witch houses in a forest.” Chandler’s writing is so noir that you can see the chiaroscuro lighting.

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Described by some critics as Los Angeles’s epic poet, Chandler conquered Hollywood in 1944: RKO released the first Philip Marlowe film, Murder, My Sweet, and Chandler collaborated with Billy Wilder on the script for Double Indemnity. The James M. Cain adaptation became a hit with audiences and critics, receiving 7 Oscar nominations (including one for the screenplay) and earning a place in the film noir pantheon. A month after Double Indemnity premiered, Warner Brothers released an adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not that featured the first pairing of real life lovers Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Looking to capitalize on the couples’ notoriety, studio mogul Jack L. Warner asked producer/director Howard Hawks to find a new vehicle for them. Hawks suggested The Big Sleep

After acquiring the rights to the book, Warner Brothers assembled an incredible team to bring it to life. Besides reuniting Hawks with Bogart and Bacall, the studio also brought in  Max Steiner to compose the score and a talented group to write the screenplay. Nobel laureate William Faulkner worked with noted science fiction author Leigh Brackett – she would co-write Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back much later in life – and longtime Hawks collaborator Jules Furthman adapt Chandler’s novel. The trio finished the screenplay in eight days and production started immediately, with principal photography wrapping up in January of 1945. (The finished product contains multiple references to wartime rationing.)

Warner Brothers, however, decided to tinker with the film before its wide release; Bacall’s agent pressured the studio to giver her more screentime. While several of the film’s slower, more dialogue-heavy scenes were reduced or completely eliminated, Casablanca (1942) screenwriter Julius Epstein added sexual innuendo and developed the relationship between Bogart and Bacall’s characters. After these reshoots, Warners released The Big Sleep in August 1946. While I watched both versions, I don’t want to spend a lot of time discussing the differences between them, so this review will cover the final cut.

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Plot Introduction: Wheelchair-bound millionaire General Guy Sternwood (Charles Waldron) has grown too old and infirm to control his two daughters’ scandalous behavior. When a blackmailer targets Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), the general hires private eye Philip Marlowe (Bogart) to investigate. Marlowe discovers that blackmail is only the beginning of the Sternwoods’ problems: the family has become caught up in a spider’s web of murder and betrayal. Several killings ensue, all of which seem to involve racketeer Eddie Mars (John Ridgely.) To make things even more complicate, the detective falls in love with Carmen’s older sister Vivian (Bacall.) Having solved the blackmail case, Marlowe descends into the L.A. underworld to solve the murders and protect the Sternwood sisters.

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My Thoughts: When I mentioned echoes, I had something very specific in mind, as my first encounter with The Big Sleep was really when I watched The Big Lebowski (1998.) Yes, that Jeff Bridges cult classic is an affectionate pastiche of Chandler’s writing, sharing its setting, basic plot structure, and specific details – i.e. a disabled millionaire attended to by an obsequious butler – with the author’s first novel. (Joel and Ethan Coen seem interested in a kind of cinematic intertextuality; 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou has a close relationship with the films of Preston Sturges.) If you take my recommendation and watch or rewatch The Big Sleep, keep an eye out for how closely it mirrors The Dude’s strange adventure.

At its best, golden age Hollywood has this kind of mythological resonance, the ability to be rediscovered and reinterpreted by each new generation. Decades later, the images remain vivid in the popular imagination: a giant gorilla atop the Empire State Building, Dorothy Gale leaving sepia Kansas for Technicolor Oz, Norma Desmond ready for her closeup. I think that these film  endure because they are the product of many talented people instead of one auteur, as myth belongs to no single author. Described by Roger Ebert as “a case where ‘studio interference’ was exactly the right thing,” The Big Sleep offers a perfect example of mythology created on time, on budget, and within genre conventions.

Few exemplified creativity within the system as much as director Howard Hawks. If you’re not familiar with Hawks, Peter Bogdanovich provides the perfect introduction to the filmmaker in his book Who The Devil Made It. Bogdanovich illustrates the director’s ability to handle many different genres by imagining a viewer watching a bunch of classic Hawks films and asking, “Did the same guy direct all of these?” Hawks, unlike many acclaimed directors – you always know when you’re watching a Hitchcock film or a Kubrick film – never overshadows the stories themselves.

Even with his famous versatility, Hawks is an especially good fit for The Big SleepPhilip Marlowe might be the perfect Hawksian hero, a consummate professional and nonchalant in the face of death. Hawks, who once said that “for me, the best drama is the one that deals with a man in danger,” excelled at directing this kind of characters in films like Only Angels Have Wings (1939.) Furthermore, he directed some of the studio era’s finest romantic comedies, and the witty, fast-paced banter of Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) prepared him for Chandler’s sarcastic dialogue. When people talk about The Big Sleep, they always bring up the verbal sparring between Bogart and Bacall; Hawks has them play it like a screwball comedy.

And, of course, Hawks had Humphrey Bogart at the height of his powers. By the time he made The Big Sleep, “Bogie” was one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) in the immediate past and Key Largo (1948) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) on the horizon. Bogart as a trench coat-clad detective has to be one of the most iconic images in film history, and his Philip Marlowe is even better than his Sam Spade. Because Bogart’s screen persona and Chandler’s character are almost identical, Bogart basically plays himself throughout the film, demonstrating again and again why he remains a symbol of cool. As one might image, he and his then-wife have fantastic chemistry; she’s just as good at delivering razor-sharp dialogue as he is.

Bogart and Bacall give stellar performances, but they also get a lot of help from a fine supporting cast. As Carmen Sternwood, Martha Vickers has to communicate her character’s troubled psyche through innuendo alone. In the novel, Carmen is completely out of control with sex and drug addictions; Marlowe’s initial task is to retrieve and destroy nude photos of her. Obviously, the Production Code meant that none of this could be said outright, but Vickers’ nymphomaniacal performance makes that unnecessary. She’s another great femme fatale. To play all the story’s various criminals, Warner Brothers brought together an army of strange-looking character actors: particularly effective are Ben Welden and Tom Fadden as Mars’ goons and Bob Steele as a hitman aptly named Canino. As Mars himself, John Ridgely plays an anti-Marlowe, someone just as quick-witted and unflappable but on the other side of the law.

While The Big Sleep undoubtedly ranks among the great films noir, its visual style doesn’t always match the genre’s iconic look. When I think of noir, I think of shadows: screens dominated by monolithic slabs of darkness. On this film, cinematographer Sidney Hickox goes in a different direction, with light defused through rain and fog and streetlamps reflecting off vintage cars. The film’s world is grayscale rather than the high-contrast black and white I’d associate with, say, John Alton’s cinematography. Many of the film’s most evocative scenes involve Marlowe sitting in a parked car, smoking and waiting for something to happen. These shots have a tremendous power, and I realized – after some thought – that Hickox’s cinematography channels the loneliness of Edward Hopper paintings.

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When the story movies to the interior of blackmailer Arthur Geiger’s home, The Big Sleep fully embodies the classic film noir style. In both the cinematic and literary versions, the plot always returns to the Geiger house, which seems to be a magnet for death. Drawing on Chandler’s description of a creepy Laurel Canyon bungalow, Hickox and the production designers place lights and Geiger’s collection of “exotic” Asian trinkets in a way that creates strange, moving shadows. Simply put, I can’t think of a better illustration of how dreamlike (nightmarish?) old black and white film can be.

Along with the cinematography, the film’s screenplay preserves the novel’s atmosphere. Faulkner et al keep the flavor of Chandler’s dialogue and make it even wittier, adding double entendres and clever wordplay. As I mentioned before, this innuendo-drive approach is important because so much of the novel – homosexuality, drug abuse, pornography, nymphomania – would have been deemed unacceptable for contemporary audiences. Despite these limitations, the screenwriters keep much of the original plot, allowing all the members of Chandler’s underworld to form alliances and double-cross each other. They make one major change, however, transforming Vivian Sternwood from a minor character to the main love interest. In the book, Marlowe abides by a strict code of ethics and refuses to get personally involved with clients.

While it would be easy to criticize this as purely commercial, I think that the writers made the right decision. As every reviewer mentions, The Big Sleep has a labyrinthine plot built around interlocking murder mysteries. (This blog has a handy chart that explains the complicated connections between all the characters.) Simplifying the plot, however, would simply not work, as so much of the novel’s tense atmosphere comes from its tangled threads. Instead of cutting out plot points, the writers change the focus, using the crime plot as a backdrop for the romance story. As strange as it may seem, this through-line ties the film together as well as The Dude’s rug: now, Marlowe has a personal investment in the Sternwood family that did not exist in the original novel.

At the very beginning of Chandler’s book, Marlowe enters the Sternwoods’ stately home and sees “a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree.” Many scholars have identified Arthurian themes in Chandler’s ouvre (his original name for Marlowe was Mallory, as in the compiler of Le Morte d’Arthur) and, in many ways, that is what the film gives us. The many hands that it passed through shaped it into an archetypal, Campbellian story: a knight who wears a fedora and drives a coupe ventures into the dark world of 1940’s Los Angeles to save a maiden. Like no other film I can think of, The Big Sleep is a hero’s quest within a romantic comedy within a film noir.

Author’s Note: Much of the background information in this blog post came from Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir by Gene D. Phillips. If you’re interested in the noir genre, this book is definitely worth checking out.)


Ray Harryhausen Retrospective: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

earth-vs-the-flying-saucers Background: In July 1952, pilots and air traffic controllers at both Washington National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base reported fireballs and strange lights in the sky above the nation’s capital. Airport radar detected seven unidentified flying objects that moved completely unlike any earthly aircraft. Combined with Cold War tensions, these sightings caused a media frenzy, as newspapers around the country published stories about flying saucers. The public reaction to these stories lead military higher-ups to hold a major press conference at the Pentagon: Major General John Samford, the Air Force Director of Intelligence, explained that the sightings were really natural phenomena. More than sixty years later, fringe theorists continue to use the incidents as evidence of alien visitors.

Columbia producer Charles H. Schneer took notice of the public interest in UFO’s – and, doubtlessly, the success of films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The War of the Worlds (1953) – and decided to make a flying saucer picture of his own. Besides Ray Harryhausen, who he brought back to do the visual effects, Schneer also hired b-movie journeyman Fred F. Sears to director and The Wolfman (1941) writer Curt Siodmak to work on the screenplay. Haryhausen’s copious research into UFO sightings led him to meet and interview people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Drawing from this, he designed and built both the alien spaceships and the Washington landmarks that they so memorably destroy. flying saucers Plot Introduction: The US Air Force prepares for manned spaceflight with Operation Skyhook, a project that uses satellites to gather data on the upper atmosphere. Alien visitors, however, misinterpret the satellites as offensive weapons and shoot them out of the sky as a prelude to their assault on earth. The aliens land at a military base and use their advanced weapons to kill everyone except for Skyhook direction Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Carol (Joan Taylor.) Shortly thereafter, the Marvins and several others are abducted by the aliens and tasked with setting up peace negotiations between the extraterrestrials and leaders of the world; as one might imagine, the human race is unwilling to surrender. Dr. Marvin analyzes captured alien technology and creates a sonic weapon that he hopes will prove effective against the invaders. The final showdown takes place in Washington D.C., where Marvin’s weapons cause the aliens to lose control of their spaceships and crash into various landmarks. earth vs. flying saucers My Thoughts: Last time, I marveled at the fact that Ray Harryhausen’s sophomore effort was released on a double bill with a film called Creature With the Atom Brain: a film with that title could have only come from the 1950’s or an attempt at 1950’s retro cool. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, however,has to be the most sublimely kitschy fifties movie title – it’s completely absurd and high-concept to the point where I really didn’t need to write a plot introduction at all. Fortunately, Harryhausen and Schneer crafted a fun, fast- paced science fiction flick that lives up to its amazing title. Because Columbia continued to provide Harryhausen and Schneer with shoestring budgets (on the DVD commentary, Harryhausen estimated that the production cost well under $300,000), they and director Fred F . Sears wisely choose to play Earth vs. the Flying Saucers as camp. While it shares the same basic plot structure as Harryhausen’s previous films, the script peppers its live-action scenes with ridiculous pseudoscience – the extraterrestrials wear suits made of “solidified electricity” and can remove minds from bodies, leaving the unfortunate human in a zombie-like state – and silly alien voices. (The aliens are voiced by Paul Frees, best known as the narrator of Disney’s Haunted Mansion.) Hugh Marlowe explains the alien technology like Adam West’s Batman solving one of the Riddler’s riddles: in one scene, he exclaims “of course!” and launches into an unbroken stream of technobabble.

Due to budget constraints, the aliens had to be men in suits instead of Harryhausen creatures, which adds another source of possibly intentional humor. It’s painfully clear that there only two aliens on screen at any one time because that’s how many costumes they had. On that note, the supposedly advanced extraterrestrials often behave in completely idiotic ways; during the assault on the Air Force base, one of them steps outside the flying saucer’s protective force field and is immediately shot and killed. Besides adding some much-needed humor, the screenplay (along with editor Danny D. Landres, who seamlessly merges live-action, stock footage, and special effects shots) helps the film flow better by cutting out the obligatory romantic subplot: the two leads are already married when the film begins. Because of this, the human story never detracts from the science fiction plot like it did in It Came From Beneath the Sea. 

Despite the lack of actual stop-motion creatures, Harryhausen’s visual effects are a new personal best. Deprived of his signature technique (creature animation), Harryhausen had to use all of his creativity to bring the alien invaders to life. Although the disintegration rays and protective force fields both look fantastic by 1956 standards, the titular flying saucers are the reason to watch the film. Desperate to prevent the spaceships from looking like “boring lumps of metal,” Harryhausen designed the saucers so that the top and bottom halves rotate in opposite directions, a design feature that gives them a suitably otherworldly feel. When the aliens lose control and the saucers start to wobble and veer off course, the viewer never thinks of them as merely models on wire. In both The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath the Sea, Harryhausen simulated the destruction of buildings by painstakingly animating pieces of rubble on wire, a technique that he uses extensively here. As Richard Scheib, one of my favorite internet film critics, writes, “Harryhausen’s vandalistic fantasies reached their absolute apotheosis in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

Although he worked on the visual effects by himself, Harryhausen gets a lot of help from the sound design. Besides Paul Frees’ alien voices, the flying saucers sound unearthly (Harryhausen’s book reveals that it’s really modified noise from a sewage treatment plant!) and the ping when bombs bounce off of their force fields wouldn’t be out of place in Star Wars.  Along with Forbidden PlanetRodan, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is a major reason why 1956 was such an important year for science fiction cinema. It has also proven to be one of Harryhausen’s most influential films, predating Independence Day (1996) by forty years and directly inspiring Mars Attacks! (1996.) For a perfect illustration of how groundbreaking Harryhausen was, just compare his work to the visual effects in director Fred F. Sears’ next effort, The Giant Claw (1957); that film’s monstrous bird is truly something you’d expect to see on Mystery Science Theater 3000. With Ray Harryhausen, you can never see the wires.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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Background: Born to poor Belorussian immigrants, Issur Danielovitch changed his name to the very Anglo-Saxon Kirk Doughlas and became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, raising his voice and flaring his nostrils in a series of performances that straddle the line between hamminess and greatness. Before he was Vincent van Gogh or Spartacus, Douglas debuted as the fourth-billed actor in this adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick’s Oscar-nominated story. Released in July, the film – directed by two-time Oscar winner Lewis Milestone – was entered into the second Cannes Film Festival.

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Plot Introduction: In 1928, teenager Martha Ivers decides to run away with local boy Sam Masterson in an attempt to escape her domineering aunt (Judith Anderson.) Tattled on by goodie-two-shoes Walter O’Neil, the two are picked up by the police and returned to the Ivers mansion where Martha gets into a heated argument with her aunt. During the confrontation, Martha accidentally pushes her aunt down a stairwell, killing her. Walter’s father covers up the incident; Sam leaves town on a train.

Flash forward to 1946, where Sam (Van Heflin) is now a disillusioned World War II veteran, drifting his way around country. A card accident leads him to his old hometown, where industrial magnate Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) and district attorney Walter (Douglas) are a married couple who hold political and economic power over the whole town. Sam’s return shakes up the lives of Mr. and Mrs. O’Neil: Walter fears that the new arrival will blackmail him and his wife whereas Martha seeks to rekindle her old relationship with Sam. Meanwhile, Sam begins a relationship with the troubled Antonia “Toni” Maracek (Lizabeth Scott); these tangled relationships lead to jealousy and, eventually, death.

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My Thoughts: Although it’s often described as film noir, I don’t think that The Strange Love of Martha Ivers really fits into that category. It contains few of the genre’s archetypes, offering neither big city sleaze nor chiaroscuro lighting nor cynical private eyes. (Scott and Stanwyck are both pretty good femmes fatale, however.) Instead, this is a prime example of studio era melodrama, with perhaps a few noir elements here and there. I’ll admit that this isn’t my favorite genre; I much prefer character driven stories as opposed to plot device-driven stories. I could easily criticize the script – by longtime Frank Capra collaborator Robert Riskin and future The Hustler (1961) director Robert Rossen – for relying too much on coincidence: Walter and Sam just happen to be there the night Martha’s aunt died, Sam’s fender-bender just happens to occur right outside Iverstown.

That, however, would be kind of unfair. The real issuer for a review of a film like this isn’t whether it uses genre conventions but rather how it uses them. The presence of Judith Anderson almost reprising her famous role as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940) points in a very specific direction: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers aspires to be that kind of movie, a quasi-gothic romance about the dark secrets of stately homes. Just listen to Miklos Rosza’s lust strings, which clearly belong to old-school Hollywood melodrama. On that level, the film works pretty well.

My two biggest complaints are much more superficial. First, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a bad, clunky, overwrought title. I think that the original short story title, “Love Lies Bleeding,” would have been much better. (Maybe I’m just thinking of the Elton John song.) Second, I feel like, in this context, the Ivers family should live in a palatatial, Victorian- or Edwardian-style house on a hill. I know that’s a total cliche, but I feel like this film is so cliched already that it might as well embrace it and give us a creepy mansion. Instead, the sets are completely generic and would have worked equally well in a romantic comedy.

As basically a love triangle (rectangle? square?) , your enjoyment of this movie is entirely dependent on whether you like the characters. The focal point, Van Heflin’s Sam, is kind of an archetypical figure in noir-ish cinema; this is the third 1946 film I’ve seen that involves a drifter revealing the insecurities of a major and eventually leading to its violent downfall. It’s a compelling through-line, and I’ve seen it done extremely well with John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice. I’m not too familiar with Van Heflin – I know him as the homesteader in Shane (1953) and that’s about it – but he does a decent job here. His character is different than Garfield’s because, despite being an itinerant gambler, Sam Masterson is basically a standup guy, more the character that exposes evil than the one that causes it. That makes him a good point-of-view protagonist.

After Sam returns to Iverstown, the first person he connects to is Toni, the least fleshed-out of the four main characters. Although Lizabeth Scott is almost a dead ringer for Lauren Bacall (someone I’ll be talking about very soon), she doesn’t really have the former Mrs. Bogart’s screen presence. While she makes for an okay femme fatale, the character is simply not compelling because the script tells us almost nothing about her, not even the reason why she was in jail. Again, she’s another stock character.

To be honest, the relationship between Sam and Toni never really grabbed me; I found Walter and Martha’s relationship much more compelling. It’s with them that the store becomes more character-driven, which is a definite plus. I like the idea of two characters having a traumatic experience in their formative years and reacting to it in opposite ways. Kirk Douglas makes his debuts in a very un-Kirk Douglas role: Walter O’Neil is a spineless alcoholic, a man completely dominated by his wife. He could have played this character in several different ways, but Douglas wisely decides to play to his strengths by emphasizing Walter’s passive-aggressive nastiness. Walter is a very conflicted character, a respected public figure who turns to the bottle because his private life is a mess. Douglas’ best scene comes near the end, where he confronts Van Heflin and describes him as all his wife’s infidelities “rolled into one.” The actor perfectly captures the emotional turmoil of a man whose long-repressed anger finally erupts. If I do give out Oscar-style awards at the end of this project, I’ll have to consider Douglas for Best Supporting Actor.

Barbara Stanwyck, who plays his wife, would also be a strong contender for a fictitious award. After the critical and commercial success of Double Indemnity (1944), it makes sense that Paramount mogul Adolph Zukor would cast her in a somewhat similar role. In fact, I wonder if that was the reason for the making of this film. Anyway, Stanwyck plays the title character in much the same way – I’ve yet to see a review that doesn’t describe her as “steely – as she did in that Billy Wilder film, bringing the same cold intensity. Like Douglas, the script gives her a lot to work with: Martha Ivers is torn between escaping her life with Sam and becoming a mirror image of her controlling aunt. It’s a good role and she makes the most of it.

I was torn on whether or not to recommend The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, weighing the mostly good performances against the mostly unexceptional script. The ending, however, pushed the film over the line for me, as it was something I would not have expected from a Production Code-era Hollywood film. If that sounds interesting to you, you can watch or download this now-public domain film at the Internet Archive.